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Travel Story by Angela Spielsinger and Ruth Montgomery

  Our Adventures Around China

Ruth and Angela at the Great Wall

Our flight with Finnair took over 15 hours with a stopover in Helsinki, Finland.

Shanghai was our first destination in China. It is a modern city with a population that is double the size of London, which is hard to believe! The city is very western with tall buildings, shopping malls, KFC, McDonalds, Starbucks, etc. It did not hit us that we were in China until we visited the old town and saw the traditional Chinese style buildings.

Using public transport was quite an experience. When we waited on the platform for the tube/metro to arrive, and the doors opened…it was like a stampede as all the Chinese people would run and push each other out of the way desperate to get a seat!

We only stayed in Shanghai for two days because we were returning at the end of our trip. From there we caught an overnight train to Beijing. Before boarding the train, one man was very rude and pushed us aside. Later on we realised that we were sharing the same berth as him. He was very friendly and offered us some food! Although our first impressions of people were that they were rude we realised that they were actually very friendly when we got to know them better. The train journey took over 12 hours.

On arriving in Beijing we were confronted by grey polluted skies. China is home to several of the most polluted cities in the world. We didn’t see the sun until we reached Tibet two weeks later!

We were impressed with the standard of the youth hostels. They are very cheap and even provide you with toothbrushes, slippers, etc. Most of them are in good locations within walking distance of the main tourist attractions.

While we were sightseeing around Beijing, the locals would often approach us and ask to have their picture taken with us. At the beginning we accepted it, as we did not want to appear rude. But it happened all the time and we realised later that we can say, “No”, and they will accept it.

Beijing is the capital of China and there are many things to see such as the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven and Tiananmen Square, and of course the Great Wall.

“He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man” - Mao Zedong

There are lots of tours for visiting the Great Wall out of Beijing. Be aware that some companies will take you to the most touristy parts of the wall such as at Badaling. We decided to visit one of the less visited parts of the Great Wall, where there are few tourists. The scenery was breathtaking; it was fantastic and the distance covered was only about 10km but we walked for four hours because the trail was steep and bumpy with loose stones. Some parts of the wall have collapsed and much of it is in a state of ruin. We were worn out at the end but it was the well worth the effort.

We decided that it would be nice to get out of the main cities and visit smaller parts of China, to see more of their culture. After doing some research we decided to visit Datong (a small town). To get there we travelled on the overnight train and opted for the hard-sleeper class. We had no idea what to expect but it was a lot cheaper. On the train we were amazed to see that the hard-sleeper class was just an open space with three bunk beds in a row. It felt like being in a prison cell! Our beds were on the top bunk because it was cheaper and nearer to the speakers - thank goodness we could not hear them. Later on, the lights suddenly went off! And there were flies everywhere!

On arrival in Datong a trip was booked to visit the Yungang Caves and the Hanging Temple the following day. Then we went to our hotel that we had booked and confirmed several days earlier via the internet. At the hotel reception we showed our letter of confirmation to the receptionist. But they couldn’t speak any English and it took us over an hour to explain them that all we wanted was a room. I had to use my Chinese phrasebook and tried to pick one word at a time, copying it out in Chinese. It took us forever but in the end we managed to get our room.

Archaeologists only discovered the Yungang caves as recently as the 1920’s. The caves were beautiful and full of stone Buddha carvings. It really is fascinating as these were carved back in 453 AD. Then we visited the Hanging Temple, a range of traditional Chinese temple buildings hanging on the cliff faces as if suspended in the air. These were built more than 1400 years ago and it is incredible that they are still standing. We were lucky to be able to walk around them.

After Datong we returned to Beijing. This time we explored the other side of Beijing before catching another overnight train to Xi’an. While walking past Tiananmen Square we noticed a lot of people running around with some making for the subway. It was very chaotic and confusing and we didn’t know what was going on. Suddenly the heavens opened and there was a heavy downpour of rain. We were stuck in the middle of the square and didn’t know where to go! And we got absolutely soaked! The locals obviously knew a storm was coming! Tiananmen Square is one of the world’s biggest public squares, a hundred times bigger than Trafalgar Square.

The journey from Beijing to Xian took just over 13 hours. We were impressed with Xian as we originally thought that with it being in central China it must be poor. But we couldn’t have been more wrong as Xi’an is a modern and thriving city full of shops. Our reason for going to Xi’an was to visit the Terracotta Army, which is very impressive with a lot of history. Local farmers drilling a water well only discovered it in 1974. There are about 6,000 figures of soldiers, horses and chariots of clay and wood. Once you have seen it, you can see other similar examples in the rest of the museum. We spent 3 hours there.

As backpackers, we kept to an agreed budget throughout our trip. China is a massive country and many people travel by overnight train. We wanted to go to Chengdu (our next stop) and were told that it was difficult to catch a train there because it is a very popular destination. Unfortunately the soft and hard sleeper classes were not available, so the only option was soft seats for an 18-hour journey! We did not have any choice as to get a bed in the sleeper class would have meant waiting for up to four days.

A summary of our nightmare train journey –

· The seats were very uncomfortable, worse than those on the London tube! We had to sit upright for the whole journey! We suffered from sore bums, aching necks and stiff backs!

· Everyone stared at us and took an interest in what we were doing. When we played Scrabble we were surrounded by loads of people watching us.

· Everyone was mucking about. Some people who were standing up tried to fight for a seat, and the lights were on for the whole journey. Imagine being on a train journey in the early hours at 3am, 4am, 5am with the lights on and people chatting, smoking, and making a lots of noise, and you have some idea of what we had to put up with!

· There was food everywhere on the floor – seeds, packets, leftovers, etc.

· One mother let her child pee on the floor and this was in the middle of the carriage.

· Our carriage was full of people, especially around our seats. People wanted to be nearer to us and stared at us because we were the only westerners in the carriage. Also we used sign language, which they probably found fascinating.

· We have never felt so dirty in our lives!

Finally our train arrived in Chengdu where we spent three days. Chengdu is well known for its Panda Breeding Centre, which we visited. The pandas were adorable and we were lucky enough to see the first set of twins being born in 2006. They were ever so cute.

There was a lot of information about tours to Lhasa in Tibet. There were many tours available at different prices but we managed to get a good deal at our youth hostel. They arranged everything for our flights and permits and we had the freedom to do what we wanted in Tibet when we got there.


We felt strongly that Tibet should be free from Chinese rule. Tibetan culture is very different – they have their own people, religion, costume, food and so on. Tibet is beautiful and very colourful and it did not feel like we were in China. The Tibetans are always smiling, and seem to be at ease with the world and have a slower and calmer pace of life. We loved the buildings and their costumes. Their facial features are different to the Chinese.

On arrival in Lhasa we could not believe how blue the sky was. For the 2 weeks we had been in China we breathed in polluted air/smog and always saw grey skies! In Lhasa the sun was constantly shining and we had to wear sunglasses. Lhasa is also known as the roof of the world and has a high altitude of 3685m. We certainly felt the lack of oxygen and Ruth experienced some symptoms of ‘mountain sickness’. It was as if she had a hangover despite not drinking any alcohol! All we needed was a good rest!

We visited the Polata Palace. The building was once the Dalai Lama’s place of residence. Inside there are 13 storeys, which include the living quarters of each monk, temples, funeral stupas and monk dormitories. Today the Potala Palace is listed by the State Council as one of the most important cultural relics that needs special protection.

We went over to the Barkhor area, where there is a well-known temple called the Jokhang Temple. The Barkhor is essentially a pilgrim circuit when pilgrims proceed clockwise around the periphery of the Jokhang Temple. It was enjoyable to watch and something that we have never seen before.

We would have loved to spend more time exploring Tibet but we only stayed for six days. So we took an overnight trip to Nam Tso Lake, the world’s highest lake. It is situated at the incredible height of 15,500 (4,718m). Sadly Ruth felt worse and had to spend most of the time sleeping in a basic tent. I (Angela) walked around and had an insight to the local community, their homes and how they live. Tibetans worship the yak, which is rather like a version of a wild cow! It made for an enjoyable day and it was nice to relax and switch off away from busy China!

We enjoyed our trip to Tibet and felt rather sad to leave it behind to go back to China. Our next stop was Kunming, in the south west of China, near the border of Vietnam where we planned to visit the Deaf Centre.

At the Deaf centre we were impressed with what it provided for the local Deaf women. They created beautiful things, such as tablecloths, soft toys and cushions. It was lovely to see them and we tried communicating with them, and compared the different signs for BSL and Chinese Sign Language. They have their own shop selling their wares and they were very proud to show us around. Many of the Deaf women were used in the drug trade or for prostitution, so now they have a better life by earning money from things they have made. We also visited the carpentry workshop where the men made furniture. One of the aims of our trip was to experience different things that Chinese culture has to offer so we had a Chinese style massage. A Deaf man was our masseur and it was one of the best massages I have had!

There were many more places we wanted to visit in China but we did not have enough time to go everywhere! After Kunming we went to Hong Kong and it was a nice change to be in a more civilised country with lots of English signs. We had no need for our phrasebook any more! We stayed there for five days and two of our Deaf Japanese friends came over and joined us for three days. Three Deaf brothers acted as our guides around Hong Kong. It is an advantage to have local Deaf people as your guides because it gives us better access. This year it will be 10 years since Hong Kong was handed over to China after being under British rule.

By the end of our stay in Hong Kong, we did not really want to return to China. From our experiences we were not too keen on the attitudes of the Chinese people, and their hygiene left a lot to be desired with dirty and smelly areas in the cities. Hong Kong is much cleaner in comparison.


· Take a Chinese phrasebook (Mandarin) everywhere you go.

· One recommendation is to take a ‘Point It’ book full of photos for the traveller. Communication breakdowns are very common and this can come in useful. You can get it from Forest Bookshop

· It is useful to do some background reading on Chinese culture before you get there. Many of the museums do not have access to English.

· At youth hostels many of the staff members can write basic English. It is worth asking them to write what you want in Chinese so that you can use it to show people – for example, in buying rail tickets or giving your destination to a taxi driver.

· It is worth booking your accommodation in advance and also asking them to pick you up from the station. It helps to give them the train times and the time your train gets in so that the taxi drivers at the station won’t rip you off.

Click on photo to enlarge

Outside the Forbidden City, Beijing  Potala Palace, Lhasa  Tibetan people

Date Submitted: 19 Jan 2007

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